Monday, January 27, 2014

`He Truly Saw the World'

The name “Clarence Brown” I’ve known for more than forty years, though the man behind the name remains more of a sketch than a fleshed-out portrait. In 1970, he contributed a poem to the Nabokov festschrift in Triquarterly. I caught up with his translation of The Prose of Osip Mandelstam (1965), then Mandelstam’s Selected Poems, translated with W.S. Merwin, and his biography Mandelstam, both published in 1973. Guy Davenport reviewed them the following year in The Hudson Review (“The Man Without Contemporaries” is collected in The Geography of Imagination, 1981). At some point I learned both Davenport and Brown were born in Anderson, S.C., in 1927 and 1929, respectively, and studied drawing and painting together at Anderson College while still in grammar school. Both went on to attend Duke University. In an interview, Davenport describes Brown as “a lifelong friend.” 

At some point I learned that Brown, in addition to being a scholar of Russian literature, was a cartoonist. In 1985 he published The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader. I’ve happened upon references to him teaching at Princeton, living in Seattle and writing a newspaper column winningly titled “Ink Soup.” Several of the latter are available online, including one devoted to the author of “Aubade”: 

The late Philip Larkin was the Librarian of the University of Hull in England. I learned of this only long after I had discovered the Philip Larkin that matters, not the one who located books but the one who located words, fastened them together in lines of verse, unfastened them and then refastened them, burnished them, made adjustments so fine that no eye but his could have seen the need, and finally published them between two covers as books that will still be here when no one on earth knows or cares that he was once the Librarian of Hull.” 

Now I’ve found Nabokov at Cornell (ed. Gavriel Shapiro, Cornell University Press, 2003), which includes Brown’s “Krazy, Ignatz, and Vladimir: Nabokov and the Comic Strip.” It’s a witty, deeply knowledgeable essay, not the usual academic claptrap, and begins like this: 

“Vladimir Nabokov was a writer of astounding visual acuity [we might say the same of Davenport]: He truly saw the world and rendered its shapes and color with unparalleled clarity. Like every great novelist, he attended to the entire range of culture, from the highest, where he and Véra were at home, to the lowest, where many of his characters and even a few of his readers (like me) can sometimes be found.” 

Brown goes on to coin bédesque, from the French for comic strip, la bande dessinée (or la BD), and meaning “comicstrippishness.” He reviews the drawing masters Nabokov had as a boy in Russia, in particular Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, whose pedagogy, Brown says, contributed to Nabokov’s “later fetish for precise description and his high esteem for those people who do not move through the world in a half-somnolent state but actually see their surroundings [again, Davenport comes to mind].” 

[Go here to see more writings by Brown.]

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